July Pin-Up Poet: Max Ryan & Where Were You At Lunch

August in Brisbane is all about poetry… with the pinnacle event, Queensland Poetry Festival (QPF) held at The Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts from August 24 – 26. The full program is now online and over the coming weeks, I will be taking time out to chat to several festival guests. First up, I embark on another ramble with one of my favourite Australian poets, Max Ryan, who is no stranger to the QPF stage.

ALS: You are no stranger to recording your work with musicians; your debut CD, White Cow, recorded with Cleis Pearce, picked up a few accolades including Spoken Word and Ambient Music categories in The North Coast Entertainment Industry Awards. You also gave some incredibly powerful performances as a duo, one that I will never forget was on the QPF stage in 2008. And now there is Before We Lose Each Other Again… an album recorded with Where Were You At Lunch (WWYAL), featuring your son, Kishore on drums.

As you know, I am passionate about bringing poetry and music together in a truly collaborative sense. American inventor, Edwin Land famously said, “politeness is the poison of collaboration.” After listening to Before We Lose Each Other Again several times during the past week, there is nothing polite about your collaboration with WWYAL. The band moves from noir-noise to quiet brushstrokes across the course of the album and more than ever, you are really giving the vocal some energy, breaking out into full-throated song on occasion. This gives the album a feeling of spontaneity; it’s like you are capturing ideas as they form. So just how did the pieces come together? Was it a process of jamming ideas or something more methodical?

Max Ryan: WWYAL are, as you’ve discovered, a powerful combo, and they bring that group dynamic with them. Blake said ‘without contraries there is no progression’ and I feel that interface certainly brought out some new and surprising things in me.

That’s a spot-on observation about how it came together. Apart from a couple of jams in the week before the recording, we had very little in the way of planned material. I’d have to say this is pretty well a live album done in four fevered days in the basement of the manse at Richmond Anglican church where producer, Nick Huggins’ dad practises his ministry. It all just spilled out in the studio from the first track where I started humming along with Pete the bass player and ended up singing out the words which first appeared as a prose poem in Rainswayed Night. I had the idea to just add on the short piece Fragment about my father as a sort of segue from the Leaving Newcastle piece. When I listened to the final mix months later I was struck by how even the slightly tentative tone as the voice leans in on that first track captures the way the recording unravelled. It felt vey much like we were all in it together and the brilliant Nick Huggins is definitely an equal player. Even though Kishore’s my son it always felt we were just two pieces in the jigsaw. But yeah there was a strong element of a very tight outfit that is WWYAL wanting to rip.

I did have a few ideas about pieces such as Boy City (written on my mobile phone just before) being sort of wistful and lyrical but the band had other ideas and what a friend described as ‘the vocals called out against the ravaged pounding sound’ of the band really evokes the industrial swirl of that harbour city (Newcastle again). There are lots of lovely accidents like that on the recording and I could go on about each one. The last track on the CD (and album title track) Before We Lose Each Other Again was the very last thing we recorded. I just came up with the refrain but we couldn’t seem to move it from there. Then the guys started just started singing that one line (that’s Nick on banjo) and I just intoned the lines between and we all went home.

Kishore Ryan: I like your description Graham. I remember after the second or third day of recording, Samaan said to me that it was very trusting of Max to let us help him turn his poems into songs. Very much so when you consider the fact that he spent several years writing the words. The music on the other hand was ‘composed’ – for want of a better word – in less than a week. We had one or two jams and came up with the outline of “Leaving Newcastle” and “Boy City”, but the rest was improvised in the studio. We did a few takes of each track and later decided which were the best ones. The fact that there were no overdubs whatsoever was a revelation for everyone, including Nick Huggins, who said, even when he’d done albums which for the most part were live, he’d always chickened out with the vocals. But that wasn’t an option for us because it was so interactive. Even on songs like “Boy City” that have a verse/chorus structure, the form is really raw. We knew that after each verse there was a chorus but we didn’t have an exact amount of bars set out. Sometimes I would play a drum fill or Peter would shift into the chord change or Max might starting screaming the refrain, and then everyone else would follow a beat or two later. I think the lack of politeness that you mention Graham comes from a fear of making a spoken word album with background ambience. It could have turned out really bad if we were too polite. Who wants to listen to someone reading their poems with a bunch of musicians noodling in the background? Not me.

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